Saturday, January 23, 2016

The new NBA

The firing of David Blatt (at least as told by Adrian Wojnarowski) seems to usher in a new era in how sports teams (or at least the NBA) are managed. 

It is unprecedented for a coach who took a non-playoff team to the Finals in Year 1 and is leading the conference in Year 2 to be dismissed. Of course, that improvement and success has a lot more to do with the Cavs' acquisition of LeBron James than any coaching prowess on Blatt's part.

So, from a social justice perspective, this is probably a good thing. The Cavs are a factor both competitively and culturally because of LeBron James, not David Blatt or any part of the Cavs' management? Why shouldn't he wield power over how the organization is run. One need only to glance at the NFL to see that the billionaires running the teams aren't exactly serving the public interest. Would the choices LeBron makes (or Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant...) be that much worse that the choices the likes of Stan Kroenke are making? Seems doubtful. So while LeBron's maneuvers may bug the rumpled traditionalist in me, it's hard for me to see it as a foreboding development.

But there is also the manner of winning. Wojnarowski reports that one of the prime goals was to get Mark Jackson installed as the head coach of the Cavs. Now, Mark Jackson coached the Warriors to the middle of the playoff picture in the stacked NBA West. He was replaced by Steve Kerr, who coached the Warriors to the NBA Championship. This year, Kerr missed the beginning of the season, and the team went on a historic run under interim coach Luke Walton, in his first coaching stint.

Does this prove that Jackson is a bad coach? Not really. But it doesn't strike me as prudent to order an organization toward landing him as coach.

Speaking of the Warriors, it does not seem that they are organized this way. The players seem to trust the system put in place by management. Steph Curry is a star, but does not seem (at least not yet) to be calling the organizational shots. When the coaches decide Draymond Green needs to sit for a game, he sits for a game. The Spurs seems to be run similarly.

On the other hand, under this system, the Cavs came within 2 games of winning the championship with their 2nd and 3rd best players out or severely diminished, and James's preferred coach not yet in place. So, it's not clear that the player-driven system won't work. But I wouldn't bet on it. It seemed to me that James the GM's success was mainly due to James the Best Player in the League.

It's of course possible that someone could be both talented as a player and superb in organizing a team. Jerry West, Larry Bird, and others have had success as coaches and general managers. But I don't see any reason why these skills would necessarily correlate, and it seems that carrying both jobs would be to heavy a load for anybody.

And this leads me to seriously doubt the strategy of my home towns 76ers for the past several years of losing and hoping to fall into position to draft a transcendent talent. The next transcendent talent will probably want to have a similar level of influence to what Lebron James enjoys. And it's not clear to me that's a better path to winning than installing a superior system that players want to buy into and be a part of.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Use your own Judgement...

Buster Olney bravely decided to have a Hall of Fame argument on Twitter, and I rewarded him by engaging him.

The first tweet I saw on it was this one:

Now, I agree that is is wrong that Jeff Bagwell has been excluded from the Hall of Fame, apparently because he was a power hitter whose career happened to coincide with a period of suspected high PED use.

But this framing makes it seem like enshrinement is something players like Bagwell are owed or entitled to, rather than an honor they receive.  So, the writers haven't merely declined to bestow an honor on Bagwell, they have wronged him and owe him an apology.

This isn't such a big deal in this case, but this type of thinking leads to some worse conclusions.

Olney has several tweets making this point:

as well as this one...

And that is my basic disagreement.

It seems to me that the character clause was put in precisely to account for situations that had not been anticipated similar to the "best interests of baseball clause" in the commissioner's powers.  As an acknowledgment that they have not anticipated all the possible criteria. Given that we've spent much of the past year renaming buildings and taking down statues, it does seem prudent to have some veto-points in place before giving someone a permanent honor.

In this case, the situation is use of substances by a number of known players and possibly a number of unknown players that enhanced players' performances in ways we still don't completely understand.  It seems like this might be a valid time to apply a clause in an unprecedented manner.*

Again, I think it's important to remember that we're not talking about throwing people in jail or banning them from the game, here. We're talking about whether we want to grant them their sport's highest lifetime honor.  Which is why I disagree with the Olney's second point here.  By not banning them explicitly, but leaving the character clause in place, the Hall of Fame is allowing for a middle ground -- players like McGwire may not be declared anathema, but we're not going to jump at the opportunity to honor them, either.**

From there, Olney gets downright silly:

I believe the phrase "proves too much" was invented for things like this.

If the media can't be trusted to apply the character clause in filling out their Hall of Fame ballots, then we've got much bigger problems than some deserving candidates being left out of the Hall of Fame. Would that the primary impact of the Jewell frenzy (and other (social) media frenzies) was that their target was denied their profession's highest honor!

Look, I get that having to make these judgments is uncomfortable, especially without access to all the relevant facts. And I also understand that "judgement" and "common sense" can and have been used to cover up excluding people based on prejudice.

But that's part of life as a professional, as a grown-up. And so long as we have situations with some ambiguity, we will need human beings with the courage and wisdom to sort through the information and values at hand, and make the best decisions possible.  They'll probably get it wrong sometimes, but I think that's better than just throwing hands up in the air.

And I think it's also worth noting that this same discretion is what enables the writers to enshrine people like Sandy Koufax, whose aggregate numbers would not meet ordinary Hall of Fame standards.

* You can read here on why I think the cases frequently cited as precedents are not quite a fit, at least to me.

** In my opinion, these middle places are an important part of a healthy society. We don't harshly punish people without rock-solid proof, but we reserve the right to withhold our highest honors. This may mean that occasionally some people are unfairly denied, but better that than either banning too many people or doling out awards we later regret.